The internal struggle within Unison is intensifying by the day. The stakes are high. The future direction of the union hangs in the balance. Left activists must seize the moment, mobilise the membership, and fight to transform the union.
There are a number of key issues and battles now coming to a crunch inside Unison, the country’s largest union.
Firstly, Paul Holmes’ disciplinary case is approaching a conclusion. Secondly, the Unison presidential team and the general secretary are supposed to be discussing ‘next steps’ in relation to legal advice relating to recent NEC motions. And lastly, the AGM of the union’s Labour Link committee is set to take place on 16 November.
Over the last few weeks, the Unison right wing has launched a series of coordinated attacks against the left NEC, and particularly the presidential team, with model resolutions circulating in branches and regions – most recently at the Police and Justice sector conference, and at the national disabled members’ conference (NDMC).
At the NDMC at the end of October, the right wing made a big show of handing out a leaflet attacking the NEC, and pushing a poster for people to hold up in the conference when Andrea Egan, the vice president, was speaking. Approximately 20% of the hall held up this poster, which had a slogan of ‘Not in Our Name’ on it.
There was also an emergency motion submitted, condemning the NEC for supposedly discriminating against disabled people in one of their recently-passed resolutions.
Of course, this was all nonsense. But it had the desired effect, with about 90% of the hall voting for the motion.
It is worth noting, however, that delegates to the NDMC conference are – to all intents and purposes – self-selecting. Branches can send anything up to 10 delegates. So, in theory, thousands of people can attend. Yet this conference was attended by just 300 people.
We can anticipate a lot more of such shenanigans over the next period, with a number of conferences for various service groups and self-organised groups on the horizon.
The right wing seems to be trying to build up a head of steam around the disputed NEC motions. But their arguments are quite nonsensical.
The NDMC conference, for example, was urged to fight to ‘defend our general secretary’ from the elected NEC. Meanwhile, these same ladies and gentlemen hypocritically attack the democratically-elected president of the union, Paul Holmes, who is being witch-hunted by his employer.
Apparently defending the general secretary is a case of fighting for a member-led union; whereas the NEC clarifying its powers under the union’s rules is portrayed as being an undemocratic power grab by the presidential team.
The legal battle will inevitably go to the courts. It is possible that the right wing are mobilising with that in mind, in the hope of arguing that ‘the members’ oppose the NEC’s interpretation of the rules. This seems to be a major part of the framework that the legal opinions rest upon, in the sense that the rules represent ‘what ordinary members would think they mean’.
It now seems, however, that there are only two or three of the original six resolutions that are in dispute: over the role of the general secretary; and over the rights of members who have been sacked.
The case is likely to be heard before the normal national delegate conference in June. We can anticipate rule changes being brought forward by both sides. But the likelihood is that much of the wind will have blown out by then. Activists from #TimeForRealChange (TFRC) are saying that the national conference will be very different.
The issue of Paul Holmes’ suspension is very much tied to all this. It is entirely possible that Paul could soon be sacked. This would suit the right wing – but it is likely to create a huge backlash. As Marx noted, sometimes a revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution to spur it on.
This should be the point at which the TFRC campaign goes into overdrive. Meetings of grassroots activists; rank-and-file committees; and rallies: all these should be being organised to defend Paul and to demand his reinstatement.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, it would be entirely possible to organise a strike vote and a mass walk out in Kirklees Unison, Paul’s union branch. But the bureaucracy has had the branch suspended for almost two years now, which makes this far more difficult.
This is also linked to the need to go over the heads of the bureaucracy, and to appeal directly to the membership.
The left has learned some of the lessons of what happened to Corbyn; or rather, they are very aware of what happened to him.
But the right wing has also absorbed these same lessons. Indeed, some of these officials were personally involved in the Labour Party bureaucracy during these years of sabotage.
They are desperate to get rid of Paul Holmes at all costs. This is another factor in the current offensive by the right wing.
Parallel to all this, the Labour Link committee results were announced last week. These give the left a wafer-thin majority. Paul Holmes is one of the winning candidates, having won in Yorkshire with over 60% of the vote.
The AGM of the Labour Link takes place on 16 November. This means that the right wing has a week to gerrymander and attack left members on the Labour Link national committee.
It is very likely that the Labour Party bureaucracy will assist the union’s right wing in this, providing a series of spurious allegations and charges against left-wing Labour Link committee members.
All of this begs the question of how the left will respond. For months we have been arguing that the TFRC needs to be organising: firstly to get their message out to the membership, beyond social media.
This requires the organisation of left activists in every branch and region; and in every service group and self-organised group in the union, to get the message out and to defeat the right wing.
As such, it is vital that the left calls for an immediate recall conference of the union, and for the formation of local rank-and-file committees to defend the union against the unaccountable bureaucracy.
A recall conference would allow the ideas to be debated; for opposing points of view to be aired; and for the underlying issues to be brought into the light, for activists to see.
In some parts of the union, the left is relatively strong. The right simply doesn’t have the numbers. They do have the backing of the union’s significant apparatus, however, along with the tacit support of a substantial layer of people whose privileges are reliant upon the bureaucracy.
These gravy-train commandos sit on every committee they can – usually on 100% facility time – and can be easily leant on by the bureaucracy.
But this is a struggle of living forces. There is every possibility that the #TimeForRealChange campaign can succeed. This requires organisation, mobilisation, determination, and audacity, however.
We are heading for a huge struggle. Political perspectives and fighting leadership are the most important things we can offer at this stage.
The task for the TFRC left is to connect with the rank and file, in order to transform the union and bring about the ‘real change’ that members so desperately need.